It sometimes happens that truth is stranger than fiction, and few things are stranger than the horrible act of murder. For the fifth category in my reading challenge this year, I asked my friends to recommend a true crime novel. My friend Kimberly came back with the recommendation for what's considered the grandfather of all true crime: "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote.
The novel was originally published as a four-part series in The New Yorker in 1965 and in book form by publisher Random House in 1966. Capote's work is considered a pioneer in the non-fiction novel arena and one of the first works of the true-crime genre.
In November of 1959, the small prairie community of Holcomb, Kan., was rocked by the brutal slayings of a well-respected farmer, his wife, and their two teenage children. The book sets the scene in Holcomb, introducing the victims, the Clutter family -- and the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. We then join the aftermath of the murders -- not just with the investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, but with the mood of the townsfolk and the newfound fear pressing down on them. We follow the killers' trail to Mexico, where they spend a short time before deciding they miss their home country and return to the U.S. just in time for the beginning manhunt. We see the final stages of the investigation and the eventual capture of the killers.
A large chunk of the book is dedicated to their short trial and their time in the Holcomb jail, and their remaining time on earth in the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men's Death Row, ending with their executions on April 14, 1965 -- five years after their original trial and conviction. For as brief as the original trial was, the two burned through appeal after appeal -- seeing four execution dates go by, with every other convict on Death Row meeting their fate long before Smith and Hickock.
Capote left New York two weeks after the murders occurred after hearing about them in the national news. He spent the next several years conducting extensive interviews with Holcomb residents, officers of the law, and the convicted killers. He combed official records for details he hadn't yet uncovered, and was present at the trial and the executions. So while this reads like any other fiction novel, most of the book is completely factual, embellished slightly in order to put the reader in the heart of the story.
There are valid criticisms of Capote by people who felt that he devoted too much time to interviewing the killers, even becoming too emotionally close to them and the story. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of each of the killers' backgrounds. Smith gets twice as much coverage and detail throughout the entire book than his co-killer Hickock. While it's true that Smith's horrible background is much more interesting than that of Hickock's, it does lend credence to the complaints about Capote's being too close -- complaints which were even made by friends of his who worried about his emotional state during the process.
However, what we get from this is a very thorough examination of the crimes, the motives, and even the mental states of the men who committed these atrocities. The ultimate conclusion, then, is that while these men did an abhorrent thing, they were still only human, with their own stories and lives before and after the murders. They weren't too dissimilar from people we know in our own lives, or maybe even ourselves. The real question is, what is that tiny difference that makes one person a killer and the other not?
Besides being one of the first of its kind, "In Cold Blood" stands as a classic piece of literature for another reason. It remains so popular because it's masterfully written. Capote takes a few liberties in the interests of telling a compelling story, and the result is a glimpse into the real lives and dramas of real people told in a way that ensnares the reader. It's a book that demands attention and can't be put down.
Immediately after finishing this book, I began looking for any bits of information I could find about the case -- pictures online of the Clutter house, the movie adaptation of the book, the movie "Capote" starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote during the time he worked on the book, and much more. The case, in and of itself, is no more interesting than any other murder case, but something about this book made this case linger with me for weeks.
If non-fiction novels or true crime are of interest to you, do yourself a favor and start at the beginning with one of the very first ever written.